Ó Laoire, Sinéad and Fiachra
(b Belfast, 11 June 1890; d Donegal 23 Aug 1958 and 27 April 1917).
Composers, instrument builders, teachers. Considered early exponents of Futurism in Ireland.
Born in Belfast, the Ó Laoire twins moved around Ireland and England for much of their formative years before settling in their mother’s native Donegal in 1908. Their father Stephen Ó Laoire, a mechanical engineer who worked at various shipbuilding firms, inculcated in the twins a deep respect for industrial design and educated both siblings in mathematics, applied mathematics and other engineering basics, often bringing them to his place of work to demonstrate practical points. These early experiences left strong sonic impressions on the twins – Sinéad recalls how as child she and her brother “had full run of the shipyards in the holidays…we didn’t swim in the sea like other children, we bathed in that mad vortex of sounds…hundreds of men shouting, hammering, driving piles…the bash and rattle of huge cranes, vast clanking chains tumbling across plates of metal, the fizz and spurting crackle of welding…”
In 1908 the twins’ mother, Clíodhna, and Fiachra were both badly injured in an accident at the Harland and Wolff shipyards. The accident left Fiachra blind in one eye and with only 20% vision in the other; Clíodhna’s head injuries left her disabled for the rest of her life, and the twins moved with her to Donegal in 1908 in order to care for their mother while their father moved on to London to work. This was a bitter time for the family, with Fiachra’s hopes of following his father’s footsteps dashed to pieces by his injury. Sinéad began teaching lessons at the local school and the family tried to settle into country life. The twins longed for the city, however, and in the rural quiet of Donegal their memories of bustling urban and industrial landscapes took on epic imaginative proportions. This longing was only further stoked by their father’s periodic visits, with tales of his latest engineering feats and stories of experiences in Dublin, London and other metropolises.
By early 1910 the twins were designing and building their own experimental musical instruments, investigating a highly unorthodox noise environment which brought them back to the sonic experiences of their youth. They called their instruments “ruaillebuailles” from the Irish expression “ruaille buaille” meaning pandemonium or mayhem. In her diaries, Sinéad refers to 17 different RBs. All are characterized by the use of bows to activate strings, and most exploit subtones, undertones and scratch tones. The twins wrote numerous pieces for the instruments, abandoning standard musical notation for graphic schematics. Scores for compositions such as “The Death of King Rí Rá” (1910) show simple lines depicting contours, entrances and exits.
The Death of King Rí Rá (1910) by Fiachra and Sinéad Ó Laoire, performed by Panos Ghikas, Nick Roth and Jennifer Walshe.
The Ó Laoire twins only presented one public concert of the RBs – this took place in 1911, and was poorly attended. Critiqued in the Donegal Post as “a night of horrible scraping”, the siblings did not make any further public performances. Despite this discouragement, they kept designing and building instruments up to Fiachra’s death from tuberculosis in 1917. After her brother’s passing Sinéad did not continue working with the RBs and over the years the instruments fell into disrepair and were eventually destroyed.
Considered by many to be examples of Futurism in Ireland, it is notable that these Irish intonarumori emerged in a rural context, divorced from the art-world connections of the Italian Futurists. The Parisian life of Irish painter Mary Swanzy, considered one of the very few Irish artists to dabble in Futurism, could not have been further from the twins’ existence. The Ó Laoire’s work was largely unknown either in Ireland or abroad until a 1988 paper by Dr. Barry Walken opened the door to interest in their work. It has since been the focus of attention from many Irish and non-Irish noise musicians. Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth described how “reading about this Irish brother and sister, off in a field just coming up with this jagged, vibrant sound-world blew my mind.”
The recording presented here was made using RBs 1, 4 and 7. The instruments were built using Sinéad Ó Laoire’s notes by engineers working at University College Limerick directed by Sinéad’s grandson Prionsias Madigan and Dr. Barry Walken. The construction of the instruments was funded by the Arts Council of Ireland.
Walken, Barry “Towards a History of Noise Music in Ireland” Proceedings of the Irish Musicological Association, Vol. 8, Issue 2, April 1988.
Crewe, Tom “Sonic Youth: The Noise of Noise” Rolling Stone, 13 April 2001.